Entertainment Television

Tim Matheson and Cynthia Nixon play Ron and Nancy in Bill O'Reilly's 'Killing Reagan'

By Bill Harris, Special to Postmedia Network

Cynthia Nixon and Tim Matheson as Nancy and Ronald Reagon in Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Reagan."

Cynthia Nixon and Tim Matheson as Nancy and Ronald Reagon in Bill O'Reilly's "Killing Reagan."

It's a long way from Animal House and Sex and the City to Ronald and Nancy Reagan.

But both Tim Matheson and Cynthia Nixon are White House-worthy in the new TV movie Killing Reagan, which debuts Sunday, Oct. 16 on the National Geographic Channel in both Canada and the United States.

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard. Killing Reagan sets up and examines the events of March 30, 1981, when a troubled young man named John Hinckley, Jr., tried to assassinate U.S. President Reagan. In Hinckley's deranged mind, it was the only way to get actress Jodie Foster to notice him.

Reagan, who was 70 years old at the time, took a bullet but survived. He went on to become an iconic president, serving the maximum two full terms. But the assassination attempt took a lot out of Reagan, and many have said he never was quite the same.

“I'm 68, and I've been doing this (acting) for 55 years, but this is the first character I've played in a long time that I was younger than,” said Matheson, who of course first became famous for his role as Eric “Otter” Stratton in Animal House in 1978.

“Usually these days I'm dropping 10 or 15 years, playing somebody in their 50s or whatever. This is a guy who was 70, and I'm 68. Wow, okay, finally! But it's just exciting. Very exciting and extremely daunting.”

Nixon, best known for her role as Miranda Hobbes on the beloved TV series Sex and the City (1998-2004), said she has a lot more empathy for Nancy Reagan after playing this role.

“I don't think that Ronald Reagan would have been president, or maybe even governor (of California), without her as his partner,” Nixon said. “After the hand she was dealt in terms of her childhood, through sheer tenacity she was able to make this unbelievable life for herself and, you know, create a president.

“I think she really did that.”

Killing Reagan begins late in the 1980 election campaign, as Reagan and Jimmy Carter battle for the presidency. In the film, an actor does not portray Carter, but rather archival footage is used.

As Reagan eventually posts a landslide election win, 25-year-old John Hinckley, Jr., played by Kyle More, is descending into the abyss. He ignores his parents’ pleas to take a serious stab at therapy and try to get his life in order, and instead doubles down on his obsession with Jodie Foster. After Hinckley makes a humiliating attempt to visit Foster at Yale, he decides to get her attention another way.

It's interesting how Ronald Reagan's name gets thrown around a lot during election campaigns, but it actually was a very long time ago that he was president, and we may have lost touch with who he really was.

“My kids, I don't think they have any idea,” Matheson said.

“A story just about Ron and Nancy is going to be political and it's going to be weird. And a story about only John Hinckley would probably be kind of twisted and bizarre. But together, that's kind of the brilliance of the O'Reilly books (Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy and Killing Jesus, in addition to Killing Reagan) and the concepts of the movies, is that they have dual tracks. I think that makes for a great conflict, and great entertainment.”

The assassination attempt also had a profound impact on Nancy Reagan.

“I think her inner sense of panic and need for control (accelerated after the assassination attempt),” Nixon said. “That drove her to do things like consult astrologers about every last thing. She felt so insecure.”

Killing Reagan obviously is no Animal House or Sex and the City. But even though Reagan always was quick with a quip, Matheson and Nixon know when it's time to be serious.

They're ready for the White House. Hey, let's hope somebody else is, too.

bharris@postmedia.com

@billharris_tv